This is the last of seven articles about Canadian communities that may appeal to 50-plus people – readers' picks of seven great places for retirement. Do you have a favourite place for retirement? Tell us in the comments section.
In 2009, while inspecting a lot in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., as a possible retirement home, Toronto residents Cathy Riggall and her husband Keith Potter realized where they wanted to live: Stratford.
"We have been coming to the Shaw Festival [in Niagara-on-the Lake] and the Stratford Festival for 40 years and we had always said if you had to live in a small town, Stratford would be a good one because it is a real town," observes Ms. Riggall, a former vice-president of business affairs for the University of Toronto, who retired in 2011.
They're not alone in choosing this Southwestern Ontario city of 32,000 for its "real town" feel.
Like Ms. Riggall and her husband, both avid theatre goers, many retirees have strong links to Stratford's Shakespeare and classical theatre company that runs May through October. But those who move here also discover a walkable, four-season city with arts and culture organizations, a chef school, a burgeoning foodie movement and a satellite campus for the University of Waterloo.
"People who came [to the festival] for 15-20 years have gotten to know the city and the people," says John Wolfe, owner of Remax a-b Realty Ltd. "Some people come for three or four plays which can spread over a weekend and you start to get a feel for the city."
This year, the average price of a three-bedroom home in Stratford is $239,493, up 3.9 per cent over 2013, with more than half-a-dozen $1-million-plus homes currently for sale.
Stratford does not promote itself as a retirement destination. Instead, its focus is slowing the exodus of young people. But the relative affordability of housing, high-end restaurants and the proximity to Toronto (two hours away by car) are assets for a city that attracts 500,000 visitors a year.
"We have let the community do its own talking and we have been successful at it," says Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson, citing a low crime rate and the 113-bed Stratford General Hospital with an MRI and numerous in- and out-patient programs.
However, a chronic shortage of family doctors is a sore point, forcing some Toronto retirees to keep their doctor there. Mr. Mathieson expects three general practitioners to arrive in 2015 after a recruitment drive by the Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance.
For some retirees, Stratford gets the nod by process of elimination.
When Ms. Riggall and Mr. Potter decided to move from their four-storey Toronto home – his knees were bad until subsequent surgery – the couple first looked at $800,000-$900,000 bungalow tear-downs in the Etobicoke neighborhood with poor public transit. Then they expanded the search.
"We started looking at small towns around Toronto that would punch above their weight because they had a university or something else, like in this case, the festival," says Mr. Potter, a retired food industry executive.
In January of 2010, the couple paid $500,000 for a 1950s-era, four-bedroom ranch here on a double lot within sight of the Avon River's Lake Victoria, walking distance from downtown. A significant renovation followed to update the airy interior in clean, modern lines.
Before buying, they knew one couple in Stratford. A year later, they played host to a party for 65 guests.
Compared with Toronto where friends are scattered across the urban region, Ms. Riggall says "here everyone you know is pretty much within walking distance."
The city's compact scale, cultural amenities and others services attracted Belgian-born Marcel Van Hulle and his wife, Edith, originally from Vancouver, longtime festival patrons. Both retired from IBM after working in Toronto, New York and Paris, first assessing options for a second home in Florida, Muskoka, Eastern Ontario and Niagara-on-the Lake.
In 2006, after looking at 50 houses in Stratford over a two-year span, they found the property they wanted: a 1970s-era back split (now undergoing a major renovation) walking distance to downtown and festival theatres.
"We always want to have a house where we can walk to things," Mr. Van Hulle says. "We are not bound to our car."
They still have a condo in Toronto, where Mr. Van Hulle works for a Toronto IT consulting firm and expects to retire in a year or so. With the Stratford house renovation to be completed next spring, Ms. Van Hulle says she and her husband are shifting their "centre of gravity" here, with both serving on boards of local cultural organizations.
"If you want to continue to use your skills in terms of making a difference, the smaller community gives you the advantage of doing that," says Ms. Van Hulle, a change strategy consultant who retired in 2012.
One irritant is the loss of the 6 a.m. Via Rail train to Toronto.
"It's sad, really sad, there is not a little bit more advanced system," Mr. Hulle says. "If there was even a slightly improved public transport train system, it would benefit tremendously."
The road to Stratford was a little circuitous for Allan and Mary Jane Amey, who retired in 2009 after almost 40 years in Alberta. They returned to their roots in Quebec, living on a 300-acre rural property in the Eastern Townships purchased several years earlier.
But that was before the birth of three grandsons in Toronto, an eight-hour trek from Quebec.
"We came to the conclusion this is not going to work," says Mr. Amey, a retired oil industry executive who later ran a Calgary-based climate-change organization. They put the Quebec property up for sale, investigating options in Prince Edward County, Caledon Hills, Coburg and, in Toronto, a condo.
Last summer, as they have since 2008, the Ameys came to Stratford for several plays. By chance, they dropped into a main street sales centre for a new condominium to be built half a block from Lake Victoria and steps from two of the three festival theatres.
In September, the couple moved into their $525,000 condo with two bedrooms, a den and a view of the lake.
"There is a sense of community here," says Mr. Amey, who bikes to the local Y. His wife, a retired social worker, swims, walks and has joined several organizations. "We have already met people who are inviting us to things," she says.
The small-town feel immediately caught the attention of long-time retirees Ernie and Janeen McAdam, who moved here from Mississauga in 1992, wishing to be within driving distance of their children in southern Ontario. "We'd be walking down the street and it was different than being in Mississauga," Ms. McAdam says. "People would say, 'Good morning.'"
One month after arriving, they joined Friends of the Festival, the theatre's volunteer group in which they remain active today.
Mr. McAdam, named Stratford Citizen of the Year for his volunteer work, says the couple's initial positive impression hasn't changed over the years. "We find Stratford is a living city."